DANSOX Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford

Posted: July 17th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Conference | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on DANSOX Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford

Dansox Inaugural Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, July 6-8

Dansox Summer School
Nicolas Lancret’s Mlle. Camargue dancing

The inaugural DANSOX Summer School, curated by Professor Sue Jones over a three-day weekend at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, brought together scholars, authors, critics and practitioners to share their knowledge of dance as a language on a multitude of levels. Alastair Macaulay, former chief dance critic of the New York Times, anchored each daily session with a talk about a major influence on our dance heritage — Marius Petipa, George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham respectively — illustrated with extensive video footage. As a dance critic of long standing, Macaulay approached each body of work with a perspective that was rich in historical detail and, in the case of Cunningham, personal association. His interpretations were the fruit of repeated viewings and reflection, while he filled out the lives of their creators and interpreters with a propensity for vibrant and often amusing anecdotes. The broad canvas he painted each morning set the tone for the sessions that followed. 

After Macaulay’s lecture on Petipa, historian Moira Goff gave a talk on and a demonstration of baroque dance. While classical ballet steps (and their terms) derive from the French court, Goff displayed the form and dynamics of those steps from Feuillet’s notation, and how they developed from France to the English Restoration stage. She not only gave clues to the form of a performance from this era but showed how these origins of classical ballet technique lead us inexorably to Petipa’s vocabulary in the late nineteenth century. 

Researcher and author Julia Bührle provided more historical detail in her talk on two important dancing masters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, John Weaver in England and Jean-Georges Noverre in France. Each wrote a treatise that legitimized ballet d’action in terms of literary sources and Bührle cites Weaver’s 1717 spectacle, The Loves of Mars and Venus, and Noverre’s 1763 Medée et Jason as the forerunners of narrative ballet. 

Bringing us into the twentieth century, filmmaker Lynne Wake introduced her documentary, Queen and Béjart: Ballet For Life. Béjart took his choreographic inspiration from the music of Queen to celebrate the lives of those like Jorge Donn and Freddie Mercury who had died young as a result of AIDS. The documentary combines rehearsals by Béjart Ballet Lausanne (an outstanding cast directed by Gil Roman) with outtakes from 1997 footage by David Mallett of the first performance of Ballet For Life in Paris. Wake’s documentary is moving in both its filming and its editing (by Christopher Bird), and shows how the lineage of classical ballet has evolved from the confines of a royal court to a vast public arena.

Each day followed a similar pattern of synaptic sparks tying all the talks and demonstrations together. After Macaulay’s lecture on Balanchine, musicologist and dance researcher Renata Bräuninger gave an incisive talk on Balanchine’s musicality followed by Gabriela Minden’s exploration of Tamara Karsarvina’s experiment in gestural choreography (harking back to Weaver and Noverre) for J.M. Barrie’s 1920 play The Truth about the Russian Dancers, and by Maggie Watson’s paper on aspects of the pastoral in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloe

While each talk revealed how much historical and theoretical research on dance is still waiting in the wings, Susie Crow offered a practical approach to the history and theory of the ballet class with the help of pianist Jonathan Still and dancers Ben Warbis and Ellie Ferguson of Yorke Dance Project. This vital focus on balletic training is linked to current teaching practice, which in turn drives the future direction of classical ballet. Keeping on the subject of practice, Jennifer Jackson and composer Tom Armstrong organised a workshop with dancers Courtney Reading and Gabrielle Orr on Sleeping Beauty, showing how their contemporary approach to both classical choreography and its musical score can generate a fresh interest in such iconic works. 

Following two talks by Fiona Macintosh and Tom Sapsford that linked dance and the classics, the final day continued with Macaulay’s lecture on Cunningham, and Sir Richard Alston’s demonstration, with dancer Elly Braund, of his relationship to Cunningham’s choreography throughout his dance career and in subsequent dances he created on his own company. The notion of classicism in dance was a theme throughout the DANSOX summer school and it concluded where it began with that most ‘classical’ of choreographers, Petipa. On hand was author and former dance critic, Nadine Meisner, to celebrate the launch of her Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master, ‘the first biography in English of this monumental figure of ballet history’, published appropriately by Oxford University Press. 

Nudity in dance: 40 years on

Posted: August 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Coverage | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Nudity in dance: 40 years on

Benjamin Asriel, left, and Burr Johnson in “Fort Blossom revisited.” (photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

Benjamin Asriel, left, and Burr Johnson in “Fort Blossom revisited.” (photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

After reading Alastair Macaulay’s New York Times article Nakedness in Dance, Taken to Extremes, I came across a review of Glen Tetley’s Mutations written in 1970 by Alexander Bland, that husband and wife team of Nigel Gosling and Maude Lloyd who wrote about dance like proud and devoted parents, never sparing in praise but never letting any perceived impropriety or imperfection pass unnoticed. The review comes from a collection called Observer of the Dance 1958-1982, published by Dance Books (www.dancebooks.com). This was the final, fruitful period in Gosling’s life when he was both art and dance critic for The Observer.

Gosling must have liked dogs, as elsewhere in the book he compares the academic critic to a good retriever with the qualities of perseverance, concentration, patience and reliability, whereas the journalist critic is ‘like a hunting dog, alert, active, wide-ranging, with a good nose and a strong voice; he may follow some false scents, but he should keep our interest riveted on the chase…’

Which brings me back to the two articles. Both answer Macaulay’s opening question, ‘How do you react to the look of the naked body on stage?’ and go on to discuss the nature and merits of the work under review. That Macaulay’s subject attracted more attention than his regular reviews is notable, though he is writing about dance in New York, where Anna Halprin’s 1965 Parades and Changes was banned for twenty years for its nudity. One aspect of his article is that acceptance of nudity on the stage has moved to a concentration on genitalia, the ‘dark patch’ that Bland wrote about 42 years ago. It seems a slow progress indeed, especially compared to the development of nudity in the European theatre. What Bland came across in Mutations was for him a revelation, something to be celebrated, whereas Macaulay’s celebration is more tentative, as if revealing a secret.

However, my purpose is not to attempt an in-depth analysis of the approach of two critics to nudity in dance, but simply to offer a preamble to Alexander Bland’s delightful review that I reprint here in full with the permission of the publisher, David Leonard.

Mutations, Nederlands Dans Theater, Sadler’s Wells

Let’s face it fully and frontally, we are in the autumn of modesty. Fig leaves flutter down all around, scattered by the wind of change. Thirty years ago Ninette de Valois was showing the formidable founder of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Lilian Baylis, the backcloth for a new ballet. It was promptly censored on the grounds that the stomach of a female statue depicted on it was too large. ‘But it’s no bigger than my own,’ protested de Valois untruthfully. ‘Ah, my dear, but you have had an operation,’ replied Miss Baylis.

What would she have said last week? In her own theatre, in Mutations, a new ballet by Glen Tetley (with films by Hans van Manen), four young men and one young girl of the Netherlands Dans Theater dance naked for minutes in full spotlight, not to mention long film sequences in which one of the performers appeared enormously magnified and slow-motioned as if to prove that he was every inch a genitalman.

It has been widely reported that the effect was perfectly unremarkable and indeed irrelevant. Certainly dancers’ slim bodies suggest Bosch’s ‘Terrestrial Paradise’ rather than a Rubens orgy. But I must make an embarrassing confession. In the nudity field I am an outsider, a freak, perhaps even a ghoul which haunts the law courts where learned men fulminate on sex and censorship. Not only am I likely to be depraved; I probably am depraved already, for I find the spectacle of beautiful naked bodies exciting. Their introduction in this ballet induced a glow of added interest which it was painfully easy to analyse.

I comforted myself afterwards by reflecting that respectable authorities in other fields have admitted similar sensations. Lord Clark has even written that all good nude painting and sculpture is sexually stimulating. Sex assumes many disguises. On the stage we readily admit arousal by crafty costumes, lighting or posture, and I tried hard to think that the lack of all disguise was no more sinful than they. Exactly what is contributed – or lost – by the final fall of brassiere or jock-strap varies a great deal. Apart from the fact that some naked people look more naked than others, nudity can obviously be employed either innocently (as it was here) or for hard-core sensuality. The simple shock of seeing it on the stage at all comes largely from the surprise of finding it out of normal context. In my sheltered life it is still usually confined to bath or bed, but the probable spread of its use in the theatre will soon, alas, deaden its impact. What will be left will be more visual than psychological. From the formal point of view the costumed figure presents an image with a single focal-point – the head. By adding a dark patch in the centre of the image a second visual accent is introduced, and this is something choreographers will have to take into account.

These minor questions apart, nudity is used in this ballet as a stimulating but serious ingredient which completely justifies itself artistically. The scene is a kind of arena (by Nadine Baylis) into which white-clad figures gradually fight their way. Once arrived, the mood changes. A nude figure appears dancing on film, and this is followed by a nice trio for girls, a typical Tetley wrestling match, and some all-in applications of red paint suggesting violence. A couple dance, clad and unclad on screen and stage, to gently variegated electronic sounds by Stockhausen; more join in and the film triplicates, until some mysterious figures in transparent suits sweep the action off stage, leaving the couple – naked and strangely vulnerable – alone as the lights fade.

It is not perhaps the most completely successful ballet in the repertoire – the start is slow and the films not very imaginative – but it is sincere, shapely, rich in those plastic movements in which Tetley excels and works up to a fine climax. It was never trivial or titillating and was extremely well danced by the finely trained and good-looking company.     8.11.70

Matthew Bourne: Early Adventures

Posted: June 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Matthew Bourne: Early Adventures

Celebrating 25 Years: Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures at Sadler’s Wells, May 21

Matthew Bourne

Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures (photo: Chris Nash)

Having seen Dorian Gray a couple of years ago, I was not, I admit, much inclined to see another work by Matthew Bourne. I am not that drawn to Oscar Wilde’s rather dark and overwrought gothic tale either, but there is in it a psychology that I felt Bourne had treated superficially for his own production purposes – Edinburgh Festival hype notwithstanding. The message I got soon afterwards from the director of Adventures in Motion Pictures, Robert Noble, was that critics who didn’t like Dorian Grey clearly didn’t get it. I was obviously in that bracket (though I didn’t admit it at the time) but I was nevertheless intrigued by the idea of Early Adventures at Sadler’s Wells to mark the 25th anniversary of Bourne’s company.

Was Bourne’s a precocious talent at the outset that Dorian Gray had not lived up to? Would these early works, like the draughtsmanship in early Picasso, show a side of his work that is difficult to discern later on? Sometimes early work, like a band’s first album, is so good its success is difficult to repeat.

It was Chris Nash’s images on the poster that overcame my initial resistance. They are lovely black and white studio shots that give a sense these are old but classic works. I also found a copy of Alastair Macaulay’s extended interview with Bourne in Faber and Faber’s 1999 publication. It’s a great introduction to the choreographer and it was reassuring for me to hear his essentially shy but self-aware voice talking about his work: ‘There were certainly some promoters who thought we were very lightweight – and possibly juvenile. Ours wasn’t considered to be serious work. We certainly wouldn’t have gone down very well at the Bagnolet New Choreography Festival – where all the other new British choreographers of that time were presenting work – or anything like that.” He discusses his training, his way of working, his dancers and talks of such influences as Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as well as contemporary choreographer Lea Anderson and filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

Once at Sadler’s Wells, a glance at the printed program gave me my first cause for concern. There are the same classic photographs, but accompanied by a bewildering and artless array of mismatched typography, hyperbolic text and performance images (thanks, but I’ve already bought my ticket) highlighting the 25th anniversary celebrations of the company.

Macaulay had taught Bourne the history of dance at Laban, so there are historical references throughout his works. Spitfire, the first work on the program, is drenched in them. “It was based on the idea of men posing. Partly it was about the poses men do in underwear adverts…And it was also about the way dancers, especially male dancers strike poses in ballet: sometimes they’re poses at the end of a solo, but sometimes they’re poses right in the middle of a dance. And they’re audience-oriented in the way that the underwear ads are camera-oriented. Then, because I had had the idea of making a dance like this for four men posing in underwear, I thought of the most famous dance for four women in nineteenth century ballet, the 1845 Pas de Quatre. So the four men do groupings from the famous lithographs.” Such juxtapositions are designed for comic effect; one of Dudley Moore’s compositions for Beyond The Fringe, was a brilliant variation of the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony on a theme of Colonel Bogey. Bourne’s Spitfire is more complex: he has transposed men for women, male underwear models for romantic ballerinas in tutus, and Leon Minkus’ music – know particularly for the virtuoso ballet variations in Don Quixote – for Cesare Pugni’s romantic score. The original Pas de Quatre was choreographed for the four leading ballerinas of the age, so there would no doubt have been an element of technical and artistic competition at the heart of it, a feature that Bourne reduces to parody without the artistry. What saves Spitfire is the clever contrasting of ideas and the irreverent confounding of our expectations, but only just; it finishes as the novelty begins to fade.

Macaulay comments to Bourne in 1999: “I think now that some people felt uneasy and unsure how to take your early work because, while the dancers were often showing innocence, youthfulness, lightness they were also looking out front at the same time. The mixture of calculation, or knowingness, in address with the innocent lightness of what was going on on stage left some people in the audience thinking, ‘Is this serious? Is this light? What is it?” Bourne answers, “Good point. My view now, with humorous things, is that, if you look as though you think you’re funny, it’s not funny. If you look to the audience as though you’re asking for a response, it doesn’t work. My lesson to performers is: Show what it is that you’re trying to show, but don’t be too obvious about it, and don’t ask for laughs.”

But what if the choreographer himself is too obviously asking for laughs? This seems to be the trajectory of the last two works, Town & Country and The Infernal Gallop. The program note for Town & Country says it is remembered as ‘the piece that most crystallised the Bourne style: gloriously witty and ironic, but also strangely moving and heartfelt.’ It was nominated for outstanding achievement in dance in 1992 and has never been performed since.

Town & Country is set to English light music of the 30s and 40s (Percy Grainger, Eric Coates, Jack Strachey and Noel Coward). Two pieces are well known to English radio audiences as the theme tunes to Desert Island Discs and Housewives’ Choice (we hear the Desert Island Discs theme on a radio in the set’s hotel lobby), so there is a definite aural heritage which may be why Town & Country is billed as ‘a look at notions of national character and identity from a bygone era.’ The Infernal Gallop is set to French light music of the 30s and 40s (the most iconic of which are Edith Piaf’s Hymne à l’Amour and Charles Trenet’s La Mer) and is described as a ‘characteristically witty and astute satire of English perceptions of the French,’ though the subtle difference between a satire of English perceptions of the French and a satire of the French by an English choreographer is lost in Bourne’s gallop for laughs. I think he was wise not to take this to Bagnolet.

Macaulay suggests that perhaps Bourne is embarrassed by the prospect of handling serious emotion: that he’d rather get through emotion by giving it an entirely comic emphasis. Bourne’s answer is illustrative of these early works. “I always go into a piece with serious intent…But I get very pulled in the direction of humour, either by ideas of my own that make me laugh or by hilarious suggestions made by people within the company.” The effect of his hilarious distractions in Town & Country and The Infernal Gallop is to distance himself (and us) from the very characteristics he sets out to portray (if we can take him seriously) and the result is these two works appear as insulated from their national environment as Damien Hirst’s shark from the ocean. The only vestige of national identity is in the music itself which operates, as it were, on an emotional track of its own: close your eyes and you can sense the national characteristics in the music; open them and there is an emotional double take, as with Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march played on a ukulele by a butler in a chintzy hotel lobby at the beginning of Town & Country, or with Trenet’s La Mer interpreted by ‘an effetely dressing-gowned merman, serenaded by a trio of sailors (exclamation mark)’ in The Infernal Gallop. It is significant that for Swan Lake, in which Bourne is widely thought to have reached creative maturity, he tells Macaulay he resisted the humorous distractions, from whatever the source: “Whenever that came up with Swan Lake, I pulled back and said, ‘No, this isn’t the place to do that. We’re not going to do that here.’ Often I would get quite a lot of opposition. People would say, ‘Look, this is going to be really funny. This is really going to work.’ Obviously Swan Lake does have its funny moments; but I was far more rigorous than before in deciding where humour could and couldn’t occur.”

There are nevertheless two vignettes in Town & Country in which Bourne gets close to emotional expression: his duet to Noel Coward’s song, Dearest Love, and his setting of the song by Percy Grainger, Shallow Brown, at the end of which there is an uncomfortable realization in the audience that a moment of seriousness has just passed; there is neither laughter nor applause. But perhaps the most emotional moment, one in which the audience fully engages, is the accidental death of the hedgehog by an errant clog. The tragic last moments of the little puppet figure and the actions of the mourning rabbit come across with surprising pathos. Is there a clue here to Bourne’s work? Is it possible that his choreographic form is inadequate to express emotion or is form in these early works constantly sabotaged by a preference for overplayed style and comedy? I can’t help feeling it’s a mixture of the two. Although there may well be something in Bourne’s imagination and sense of theatre that is temperamentally suited to the expressive world of the marionette, the problem is more basic. In Peter Hall’s exploration of form and language in drama, compiled in ‘Exposed by the Mask’, he comes to the conclusion that ‘performance always has to have the equivalent of a mask in order to transmit an emotion. It must have a mask, even if it is not a literal mask. It needs the equivalent if it is to deal with primal passions. It demands form – either in its text, or its physical life, or its music. All these can act like a Greek mask. Only then can strong feeling be dealt with.’

In Apart from a lovely flowing episode of entrances and exits for the dancers on scooters – Ashton’s Les Patineurs on wheels – one of the most effective scenes in Town & Country is a choreographed version of the station meeting between Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in David Lean’s film, Brief Encounter. Instead of one couple, there are two, which gives Bourne the opportunity to play them in unison to great effect until the very end, when one woman finds herself unexpectedly alone. It also explains why the slow movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto finds itself on the list of English music: it accompanies the original film soundtrack.

When a choreographer is already over the top, what happens in a finale? Over the top on speed. But at the very end of The Infernal Gallop as we are about to relish the energy of Offenbach’s Gaité Parisienne, Bourne catches us unawares and beautifully understates the cancan: a masterful stroke that ironically brings the house down.